Most people dream of winning the lottery. With millions of tickets sold every week in the United Kingdom, for both the Lotto and the EuroMillions, as well as other games offered by the National Lottery, there can be no argument that a lot of folks would love nothing more than to see their bank accounts bulging with millions of pounds. For the majority of us, of course, it is nothing but a pipe dream. The odds of any lottery are such that they are effectively stacked against us, so we will go on fantasising without ever seeing the fantasy become a reality.
What would you do, though, if you saw a pattern in the lottery that meant that you could as good as guarantee that you could be a winner? That is what happened to Jerry Selbee, who, along with his wife Marge, took on the lottery and won to the tune of millions of dollars. It was such a crazy story that before too long someone in Hollywood found out about it and decided to turn it into a film, with Jerry & Marge Go Large hitting Paramount+ around the world in 2022. What happened and how much of the story of the movie was true to life?
The True Story
Where else to start, then, but with the true story of Gerald and Marjorie Selby. It came to light thanks to a Huffington Post article by Jason Fagone, published in March of 2018. Gerald Selbee, known to most as ‘Jerry’, used to work for Kellogg’s at the company’s site in the town of Battle Creek, in the US state of Michigan. A man who had always loved puzzles, Jerry worked as a materials analyst who designed boxes in order to increase the shelf-life of the cereals and freeze-dried foods that they contained. It wasn’t a fun job, so he used to do puzzles for fun.
His parents had both worked in factories, so it was a natural job for Jerry to go into. On one of the days in his office, Jerry looked at the combination of numbers and letters that were on the bottom of a General Mills box, a competitor’s cereal that had been brought in by one of the sales reps. Though other companies had similar information on their boxes, usually to indicate what its shelf-life was, the one on General Mills was garbled, suggesting is was in some sort of code. He spent time figuring it out, soon clocking that he could tell exactly where and when a box of cereal was produced.
A Gift for Mathematics
Though he was dyslexic when he was younger, Jerry was brilliant at mathematics, being able to work out problems at junior college level when he was in eighth grade. He married his high school sweetheart, Marjorie, and got to work in the factory not long after. Somewhat of an obsessive, Gerry would often involve his kids in his latest obsession, such as getting his son Doug to help him counting coins that he’d bought from the bank, finding rare coins that they sold for more than $6,000 after discerning the good from the normal.
After he retired from the factory and moved with Marge to a town called Evart, Jerry was looking at a brochure for the newly launched State lottery when he noticed a flaw in the payout table. The game, called Winfall, asked players to pick six numbers between 1 and 49 and cost $1 per ticket. Six correct numbers offered a jackpot of at least $2 million, with two, three, four or five numbers meaning a lower payout. If nobody won the jackpot for a team or the jackpot reached $5 million, what was known as a ‘roll-down’ occurred and it was this that intrigued Jerry.
Figuring Out the System
A roll-down meant that the jackpot cash would be shared between the lesser tiers of winners, presuming that there was no outright jackpot winner. This happened every six weeks or so, announced ahead of time by the Michigan State Lottery in order to bring in punters. The odds of the lottery said that there was a 1 in 54 chance of getting three numbers and winning $5 and 1 in 1,500 of getting four numbers and winning £100. If you waited until the roll-down, Jerry noticed, you stood to win more than you lost, on average, on the proviso that no one won the jackpot.
When a roll-down happened, a three-number combination would be worth $50, whilst four numbers would earn you $1,000. The odds shifted into the favour of the player, meaning that a $1 ticket was worth more than $1 on roll-down weeks. For Jerry, that wasn’t as important as how he was going to hide his new lottery playing from his wife, who had always disapproved of the game. He also thought he might be wrong; after all, what were the chances that the makers of the lottery would miss such a huge loophole when Jerry worked it out in minutes?
Putting His Theory to Test
He decided to put his theory to the test, picking numbers on roll-down weeks and writing them on a piece of paper, checking to see how much he’d win. When he realised he was right, he put his theory to the test and bought $2,200 worth of tickets, but he only won $2,150, meaning that he’d lost $50. Rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, he looked at his theory and realised that he hadn’t spent enough, so he bought $3,400 worth of tickets. This time he won $6,300, giving him a 46% profit.
Emboldened by his win, he went even bigger on the next roll-down, spending $8,000 on tickets and winning $15,700; a profit of 49%. Jerry had cracked the lottery’s code, as other Americans had done over the years. Rather than report the flaw to the State Lottery Commission, Jerry figured that they probably already knew and, given that they took about 35c on every dollar sold, it didn’t matter who won. He wasn’t manipulating the lottery, instead playing as it was intended. He didn’t have better odds than anyone else buying a ticket, he was just buying loads of them.
Doing the Grunt Work
Jerry and Marge didn’t have it easy when it came to buying their tickets. Lottery machines could only print ten slips at a time with ten lines on each, meaning that you’d need to print 10,000 slips in order to buy $100,000 worth of lottery tickets. This would take hours on end, to say nothing of the machines running out of ink or paper being jammed. After that, the Selbees put their tickets into piles of $5,000 worth, counting them in front of the TV and sorting them according to the amount of winning numbers in successful lines.
Even once they’d checked all the tickets they checked them again to make sure that they hadn’t missed anything. They also realised that the more people that bet, the more chance they’d have of winning, so they persuaded their kids to put some money towards it. They bet $18,000 the first time they worked as a family, losing most of it because someone hit the jackpot. Jerry insisted that it was bad fortune and they believed him, which is just as well because they were making profit within two more roll-down draws.
GS Investment Strategies LLC
Jerry and Marge created a corporation to manage the group of people that were playing with them, giving it an intentionally dull name and selling shares at $500 a piece. Eventually the roster of players grew to 25 people, with a parole office, state trooper, the vice-president of a bank and three lawyers on board. By 2005, the group had played the lottery 12 times and increased the tickets that the bought each time. Those involved did different things with their money, with Marge putting hers into savings and Jerry doing a mixture of thing.
He bought himself a new truck, for example, and also invested in coins bought from the US Mint. The latter move was, in his eyes, done in order to protect the family from any future financial catastrophe. He had as many as as five safety deposit boxes filled with silver and gold coins by the time that he stopped buying them. Things were going well for GS Investment Strategies LLC, so Jerry was personally affronted when the state lottery decided to shut the game down and blaming a decrease in ticket sales.
The New Game
The group weren’t out of the action for long. A member of the group told Jerry about a game in Massachusetts called Cash WinFall, which cost $2 to play and rolled-down when it hit $2 million rather than $5 million, as well as asking you to pick six numbers between 1 and 46 instead of 1 and 49. Otherwise, the games were the same and Jerry realised that they could play that one instead. The only problem was that you needed to buy tickets in person and the nearest store was more than 700 miles from Evart.
Jerry asked the member if he knew anyone that owned a store in Massachusetts that sold lottery tickets, being told that Paul Mardas did just that. Jerry climbed into his new truck and drove the 12-hour journey to the East Coast, ready to buy tickets for the new game in a different place. Unbeknownst to Jerry, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James Harvey, had also figured out the loophole. He got his dorm mates involved, spending $1,000 and winning $3,000, giving them $2,000 in profit.
It wasn’t just Jerry and the MIT crew that were playing Cash WinFall. A biomedical researcher called Ying Zhang, who was studying at Boston University, also spotted the flaw. He persuaded friends to play the lottery with him, betting between $300,000 and $500,00 when the roll-downs came around. That wasn’t in the same league as the MIT students or the members of GS Investment Strategies LLC. Regardless, the rules of the Massachusetts State Lottery were such that the organisers knew exactly how many tickets were being sold at each store.
In other words, they knew about the flaw and didn’t care, taking their cut from each ticket sold. Even when discrepancies were noticed, such as Zhang using pre-printed tickets and buying them on credit, paying for them after printing them, the organisers turned a blind eye. Instead of revoking the licences of the stores, which could have happened, they were let off with warnings and told not to break the rules in the future. Jerry and Marge, meanwhile, convinced Mardas to let them use his machines by offering him a stake in GS Investment Strategies LLC.
The Selbees and their group kept playing and kept winning, but the MIT group realised that they weren’t winning as much as they should be because competitors were also playing the game. Rather than settling for what they were getting, with estimates suggesting that they won about $3.5 million, they chose to be more aggressive with their betting. They figured that they could force a roll-down at a time that neither Zhang nor the Selbees would be expecting, as the Cash WinFall draw of the 16th of October 2010 drew nearer, they struck.
The jackpot was ‘only’ $1.6 million in the week before the draw, so neither Zhang nor the Selbees thought a roll-down would happen. Over three-and-a-half days, the MIT crew bought 700,000 tickets, costing $1.4 million and tipping the roll-down before anyone else knew it was happening. They won a profit of more than $700,000, whilst Jerry, Marge and Zhang missed out. Jerry was annoyed, feeling that this manipulated the game in a manner that left other people out and so remained on high alert for any such silliness in the future.
The Story Breaks
Investigative reporter, Andrea Estes, was given a tip by someone working for a Massachusetts Stage agency to have a look at the 20/20; a record of players that had won over $20,000 or more than 20 times in the previous year. GS Investment Strategies LLC came up on the list, so she went to ask Marge some questions. She refused to answer, so Estes tracked down Jerry instead. He also refused to answer, meaning that she was sure that she was onto something and decided to keep digging.
After requesting public records from the lottery, she identified the other groups that had been buying tickets. When she approached the lottery for comment, they acted shocked that it was going on. Word of her investigation reached the office of the newly installed State Treasurer, Steven Grossman, who told the Executive Director of the lottery to ensure that everything was done by the book. Soon, the lottery officials began to crackdown on the groups of bettors, suspending the licences of stores that had been selling them the tickets.
Estes’ story, with the headline ‘A game with a windfall for a knowing few’, was published on the 31st of July, 2011. It said that anyone that could buy at least $100,000 worth of tickets could guarantee themselves a profit, meaning that ordinary players were essentially subsiding the play of the big groups. The story was sensational, leading to Grossman saying that the state would phase the lottery out and limit stores to $5,000 in ticket sales each day. Jerry was upset at being framed as some sort of cheater, resolving to keep playing whilst they could.
The final time that Jerry & Marge played the game was in January of 2012. By the time that the tally on their playing was done, they’d grossed nearly $27 million over nine years, netting $7.75 million in pre-tax profits. They had played the lottery 12 times in Michigan and 43 times in Massachusetts, losing only three times. A report by the state said that Cash WindFall had put nearly $120 million into the state’s books, with the large group buying being a part of the reason for that, going some way to absolving the Selbees.
Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction – What Differs in the Film
Now that we know the true version of what happened when Jerry Selbee figured out how to win the lottery, it is worth having a look at how the Hollywood film differs from the truth. In Jerry & Marge Go Large, Jerry Selbee is played by Breaking Bad actor, Bryan Cranston, whilst Annette Bening plays Marge. One of the biggest differences between the film and real life is the fact that the movie only tells us about one rival group, leaving out the role of Zhang in everything that happened and instead focussing on the MIT group.
The action is also moved to present day, rather than being based in the time that it actually happened. Of course, this isn’t immediately identifiable to people that don’t really know much about small-town America. It also moved to heighten the conflict between the Selbees and the MIT group, suggesting that the latter manipulated the roll-down in order to spite Jerry and Marge rather than just to win more money for themselves. Then there’s the story of who else was involved, with the film suggesting that the entire town bought into the LLC.
Harvey and Yuran Lu, a member of the MIT group that apparently asked Jerry to take it in turns, went on to start an internet Startup, rather than be criticised by Harvey’s father as suggested in the film. For his part, Jerry used some of his winnings to open a construction financing firm. He lends money to people in the Traverse City area who build homes for military veterans and others. He also still plays the lottery and was the one that did gamble every now and then with Marge abstaining, which is the opposite of what the film suggests.
As with any movie, there are countless liberties taken by the film-makers in order to tell the story in a more interesting way. Jerry didn’t buy a store of his own, for example. Yet the reality of the story of the Selbees is that the truth is even stranger than fiction. All those involved in the making of it that met the couple spoke of their mild-mannered nature and how much they genuinely didn’t think they’d done anything wrong. It was simple that Jerry had spotted a flaw in how the State Lottery worked and did what he could do to exploit it, as much for something to do as for the money they won.